May is Asian American and Pacific Islander month. As we celebrate these cultures, we must also take the time to learn more about the figures who fought for the equality and liberties they deserve, since the United States has not been a very forgiving place. Yuri Kochiyama is not a household name, but for all her perseverance and will it should be. Here’s a look at her life, and all she did for the Asian American community.
Both of Kochiyama’s parents were Japanese immigrants who made their home in San Pedro, California where Kochiyama was born in 1921. Life was peaceful for some time and they lived comfortably, until the 1942 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The immediate reaction of the US government, for fear that many Japanese-American citizens were spies or meant them harm, was to put them in internment camps. Approximately 120,000 Japanese-American men, women and children had their lives disrupted as they were forced into one of 10 camps along the west and south coasts, Kochiyama and her family included. Kochiyama spent two years in Jerome Relocation Center in Arkansas. Her husband, Bill Kochiyama, whose name she later took, was a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, and stationed at the camp the same time as her.
They married after her release, and moved to New York. Kochiyama and her husband, along with her six children, took up residence in a section of Harlem’s low income housing units. It was here that Kochiyama first got involved in social justice. She joined the Harlem division of Freedom School, an organization that fought for access to education for poorer citizens. Working alongside Black speakers and writers, she befriended Malcolm X, who played a major role in radicalizing her thoughts on social protests. Per his suggestion, she joined the Organization for Afro-American Unity, which he led. Thus began her fight in the field of social justice. As well as advocating for equal rights for African Americans, her dedication spread to Puerto Ricans, as she joined the Young Lords Party in 1969 and even participated in their storm of theStatue of Liberty in 1977 to demand equal rights.
As an Asian American herself, the freedoms of Asian-American citizens sat near and dear to her heart. She attended and led anti-Vietnam War and anti-imperialist marches, and raised national awareness for thetreatment of Asian Americans. The Kochiyamas were also at the forefront of the movement to have the US government formally apologize for its treatment of Asian Americans during World War II. She remained highly active in protests and social injustice corrections until her death in 2014.
Adored by past and current activists, she stayed true to her ideals of togetherness and unity in the face of adversity. Her legacy continues even to this day, one she describes in her words as simply, “Build bridges, not walls.”